ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT advocate Angela Glover Blackwell makes no bones about why PolicyLink, the nonprofit she leads, held its 2,500-person Equity Summit in Detroit last November: “Detroit represented the problem and the hope.”
It’s the problem because it’s “a classic example of what happens when you don’t keep up with the needs of a changing population.” It’s the hope because it’s a hub of fresh energy—from government, foundations, community groups, and business—aiming to “build a future based on the people who are going to be the future.”
When Blackwell talks about that future, she means one founded on the people who live in Detroit now, “not some imaginary people who aren’t here—and not based on trying to attract people who have decided they don’t want to be here.” Over the last half century, fewer and fewer white people have decided to live in Detroit. This trend started in the mid-20th century as more and more people of color did live there, and continued over the last three decades as many people of color also started to move away. In the 2010 census, Detroit registered at just over 700,000 people, down from 1.2 million in 1980. Those that remain face a stark economic situation: 34.5 percent live below the poverty level, Blackwell points out, compared to 15 percent nationally.
For many, Detroit is not just the epitome of the Rust Belt, but of a black-and-white narrative that is so rote as to seem invisible, or invincible: Whites flee an urban area, African Americans in poverty remain (more than 80 percent of Detroit’s 2010 population was African American). But for Blackwell, the story and statistics are never just black and white. She points out that, in Detroit, poverty includes not just 37 percent of African Americans, but also “32.5 percent of Latinos, 33 percent of whites—because so many white people who live in Detroit have been left behind—and 47 percent of Asians; that represents a concentration of the Hmong population.”